Sunday, January 31, 2016

History of the Eagles (Jigsaw Productions, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was History of the Eagles, which was rather arbitrarily presented as a “TV mini-series” and divided into “part one” and “part two,” even though “part one” ran 2 ½ hours (including the commercial breaks, among which were quite a few pitches from the fossil fuel industry with supposedly ordinary people proclaiming, “I’m Rich, and I’m an Energy Voter” — it seems an “energy voter” is one who supports expanded fossil-fuel production in the U.S., which made me respond to the TV, “I’m Mark, and I’m a Survival of the Human Species Voter”) and “part two” ran a comparatively short 1 ½ hours. (The complete running time for both parts listed on is 189 minutes.) I wasn’t expecting this to turn into a four-hour commitment during which I couldn’t watch anything else (including a somewhat interesting-sounding Lifetime movie as well as a Doctor Blake episode on KPBS that, ironically, was about the murder of a rock star), but in the end I was glad I made it through the end. The film, of course, is about the Eagles, the legendary rock band (“Oh, no, they weren’t legendary. They really existed,” Charles would say about now) founded in Los Angeles in 1971 out of people who had come to California from other places — and it was nice to know that the film was a 2012 production that interviewed virtually all the Eagles, including co-leaders Glenn Frey and Don Henley, rather than (as I’d feared) a quickie assemblage of film clips thrown together to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Frey’s recent death.

The two had dramatically different backgrounds: Frey was born in Detroit and grew up at a time when the Black Motown acts dominated the city’s musical scene — it wasn’t clear from the film just what place a white guy who wanted to rock would have there (later Jack White would grow up in Detroit at a time when rock was definitely no longer “cool” and he’d actually be looked down on for learning guitar and wanting to be a musician instead of a rapper or D.J.) — and the film shows that Frey sang backup on one of the few white rock hits that came out of Detroit in the 1960’s, Bob Seger’s “Rambling Gambling Man.” (Later Seger would turn up on an Eagles album as co-writer of the great song “Heartache Tonight” from The Long Run.) Henley was a Texan who had come to L.A. with a band called Shiloh whose first (and, it turned out, only) album was produced by Kenny Rogers for a tiny label called Amos Records. By coincidence, Frey was with a band called Longbranch Pennywhistle (his retrospective comments hinted that he and his original bandmates picked a name deliberately obscure and meaningless so people would notice it) that was also signed to Amos, and the two of them were hired by John Boylan, Linda Ronstadt’s original producer, manager and boyfriend, to play in her backup band. (The film mentioned that he was her manager and producer, but not her boyfriend — and Boylan took a lot of heat in the music business because, after making a few O.K. albums for Ronstadt that sold decently but not spectacularly, they broke up both professionally and personally. Ronstadt got Peter Asher, one-half of Peter and Gordon turned ace record producer, to work on her next album, Heart Like a Wheel, which sold millions, catapulted her from minor stardom to superstardom, and provoked a lot of reviews to the effect of, “Of course it’s better than all her previous albums! Now she’s got a real producer instead of a boyfriend!”)

According to the Wikipedia page on the Eagles, the original lineup — Frey on guitars and vocals, Bernie Leadon on guitars and banjo, Randy Meisner on bass and Henley on drums and vocals — only played publicly for Ronstadt once, at Disneyland (of all places) in July 1971, but they worked heavily on her first album. Then Frey and Henley decided they wanted to go it alone and Ronstadt graciously let them go. It’s not clear where they got the band name from — or even what the name is; comedian Steve Martin (then getting his start in the same L.A. club circuit in which the Eagles were trying to break through as musicians) claimed he suggested it to them and it’s The Eagles, but Glenn Frey has said it was inspired by the Hopi spiritual tradition and its regard for eagles as avatars of God, and it has no article — just “Eagles.” They approached hot-shot producer Glyn Johns to record their first album for David Geffen’s Asylum Records (which quickly became the center of L.A.’s soft-rock scene — Geffen had the Eagles and their occasional songwriting partners Jackson Browne and J. D. Souther[1] under contract, and grabbed Ronstadt after Heart Like a Wheel completed her previous contract with Capitol). Only Johns, who had cut his teeth as George Martin’s engineer on the Beatles’ recordings and had gone on to work with the Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin, wasn’t really interested in the country-pop-rock fusion the Eagles were going for and turned them down — until he heard them singing an old country ballad and doing three-part harmonies on it. Then he decided to work with them after all, though he insisted on taking them to London and recording them in the British studios he was used to — at a time when only one of the band members had ever been out of the U.S. The first album, Eagles — whose cover was shot on a camping trip at Joshua Tree where the band members got high on peyote and Frey had a vision of a giant eagle crossing the sky, which became the theme of the album cover — broke three hit singles, “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (written by San Diego-based Jack Tempchin at Der Wienerschnitzel in Mission Hills — until recently the Wienerschnitzel had a commemorative plaque saying that the song had been written there, but they removed it about six months ago) and “Witchy Woman” (the first song of the Eagles’ I can remember hearing, though I couldn’t get the title right — at first I thought it was “Winchy Woman” and then “Windshield Woman,” just as when I first heard Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen” I asked my mom, “What are donkey chains and why would someone write a song about them?”).

To me the Eagles were the sort of band who became background in my personal soundtrack; in 1972 my favorite rock musicians (aside from my old 1960’s favorites like the Beatles, Stones, Dylan and Doors) were people like Captain Beefheart and David Bowie. The Eagles played catchy little ditties that were bright spots on AM radio but didn’t really “grab” me, and I didn’t buy any Eagles’ LP’s until they came out with The Long Run in 1979 — and that one only because I was re-entering the rock scene after having been bored out of my wits with most of what was coming out in the mid-to-late 1970’s (that was when I started assembling my first collection of opera LP’s and reinforcing my interest in classical music generally) until the punks came out and, though I didn’t like the Sex Pistols and wasn’t that fond of the Ramones, I loved Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe and The Clash. The Eagles went through the 1970’s gradually shedding their country-music influences and becoming more of a rock band — their second album, Desperado, was a concept album based on the idea that 20th century rock bands were the modern-day equivalent of 19th-century Western outlaws, and the LP was a flop even though the title song became one of the Eagles’ trademark numbers (largely because Linda Ronstadt covered it) even though I think it’s one of the silliest, most pretentious songs ever written. (Diana Krall covered it on her most recent CD and I didn’t like it any better now than I did then. The song I did like on that theme was “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” by the Eagles’ Asylum label-mate, Warren Zevon, which deftly and expertly skewered the whole ridiculous pretension behind the Eagles’ original.) They made a comeback with their third album, On the Border, and their fourth, One of These Nights, whose title song was their first #1 U.S. hit. Along the way the Eagles’ sound got less country-ish and more rock (which was fine by me even though it didn’t make them a favorite band of mine!), to the point where they fired Glyn Johns as their producer after two songs for On the Border because they wanted to be produced as a rock band and he was still handling them as a pop band, with heavy echo on their vocals (“That’s my echo!” he insisted). At one point, when they said they wanted to do harder rock, Johns came back with, “The Who are a rock band. You’re not.”

The Eagles replaced Johns with Bill Szymczyk, whose last name is so unpronounceable I heard at least two versions on the History of the Eagles soundtrack (“Sizz-mick” and “Sickz-mick”), and for two songs on On the Border they added a new guitarist, Don Felder, who added technical proficiency and a rock “edge” to their sound. (I was surprised since I’d always thought of the Eagles as a five-piece band and hadn’t realized they’d started out and recorded two albums with just four — the opposite of the Beatles, who were a five-piece in their early days in Liverpool and Hamburg until their original bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, left and Paul McCartney took over at bass instead of playing third guitar.) Felder became a permanent member of the band and, when Leadon quit after One of These Nights because his first love was country music and he didn’t want to rock the way Frey and Henley did, they hired someone who already had a reputation as a solo artist: Joe Walsh, who’d been in a short-lived 1960’s band called James Gang (another connection to Old Western outlawry!) and then made a well-received solo LP called The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get. (The title should have been a warning to the other Eagles what they were getting into when they brought in Walsh: though all of them were doing drugs, Walsh had a bigger and nastier habit than anyone else and he was also, as he himself as well as the other Eagles referred to him in retrospect, “the king of the room trashers” — he once did $23,000 worth of damage to a hotel they’d stayed in and he was the main reason why, even at the height of their popularity, they had a hard time finding hotels which would put them up.) These five went into the studio and recorded Hotel California in 1976, which would become the Eagles’ best-selling LP, break three hit singles and spark decades of controversy over the “true” meaning of the title song. (At least 17 separate buildings have been offered as the real-life prototype for the Hotel California, which I found amusing because I’d always thought “Hotel California” was just a metaphor for the state.) I did get upset about a blatant piece of what I call “first-itis” — the tendency of biographers in all media to credit whoever they’re biographing with being the first person to do something — when one of the interviewees said, “Who else before ‘Hotel California’ had a number one hit single that was over seven minutes long?” It was intended to be a rhetorical question but I had the answer to it in about a nanosecond: the Beatles, in 1968, with “Hey Jude.”

Just after the year-long tour to promote Hotel California bassist Randy Meisner left — apparently because Frey and Henley had been ragging him about his reluctance to sing his feature, “Take It to the Limit,” because he’d either developed stage fright (the explanation in the movie) or his illnesses had impacted his voice (the one on the Eagles Wikipedia page) and therefore wasn’t sure he could hit the big high note at the end. Since the Eagles had hired him away from the band Poco (one of the two splinter bands that had formed after the breakup of the late-1960’s L.A. band Buffalo Springfield, and far less well known than the other post-Springfield splinter band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), they logically went to Poco again and hired Meisner’s replacement, Timothy B. Schmit. There’s a curious comment in this film about Meisner not fitting in because he was not an “alpha” the way Frey, Henley and Walsh were — but then the only two rock bass players I could think of who were “alphas” in this context were Paul McCartney and Sting, and they were so much more than just bass players (like singers, principal songwriters for their bands, and ultimately highly successful solo artists) they don’t really count. Alas, drugs, drink, musical and personal differences and sheer exhaustion with the gig led the Eagles to spend nearly three years on the follow-up, The Long Run — though I still love that album (if Hotel California is the Eagles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Long Run is their White Album). It’s become a truism of rock history that in the early 1960’s the reigning band from L.A. was the Beach Boys and in the 1970’s it was the Eagles — though that ignores the hugely important band that emerged from L.A. between the Beach Boys’ tumble from their commercial peak in 1966 and the Eagles’ rise in 1972: the Doors. Indeed, I would argue that what made Hotel California and The Long Run better than the Eagles’ previous recordings is that they managed to marry the Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies and projection of the “sunny California” image with at least something of the Doors’ embrace of the state’s darker side. The Long Run was originally announced as a two-LP set but the band members wrote so few songs they ended up releasing just a single LP, and they spent most of late 1979 and early 1980 touring in support of it.

Things came to a head on July 31, 1980 at a benefit the Eagles were playing for California Senator Alan Cranston, a liberal icon later tarnished by his involvement with Charles Keating and his crooked savings-and-loan company, when either Mr. Cranston (the movie) or his wife (Wikipedia) personally thanked every member of the band for performing for his campaign. Don Felder, who’d previously told the other band members he regarded political benefits as a waste of time they could be spending making money, replied, “You’re welcome … I guess.” Glenn Frey not only threatened Felder with bodily harm after the show, he made the threats on stage, in full view (and hearing) of the audience. While neither the movie nor the Wikipedia page said whether or not Frey actually followed through on his threat to beat Felder up, it spelled the end of the Eagles — though they still owed their record company one more Eagles album, a live recording from the Long Run tour which is listed on the Wikipedia page as simply called Live Eagles but which other sources I’ve seen referred to as Seven Bridges Road (after a Steve Young song, previously recorded by Rita Coolidge with Ry Cooder, which the Eagles had incorporated into the concerts and picked as the single from the live album). Apparently some of the vocals were electronically “tweaked” in post-production — and that meant the Eagles had to dub new parts onto their recordings, which was difficult for producer Szymczyk to coordinate since Frey refused even to speak to his fellow band members and they ended up dubbing the vocals at different times in different studios in different cities. It was apparently Frey who made the famous remark, when asked whether the Eagles would ever get back together, that it would happen “when hell freezes over,” which meant that when the Eagles finally did get together again in 1994 the album released in support of the reunion (apparently mostly old songs from live performances with a handful of new studio tracks), and the reunion tour itself, were both called Hell Freezes Over. 

The time since hasn’t been free of the angst that broke them up in the first place, some of which began when Frey and Henley decided they were the principal leaders of the band and wanted the Eagles’ partnership agreement rewritten to give them a bigger share of the income. Walsh and Schmit agreed but Don Felder went ballistic, refusing to sign the new agreement and ultimately quitting the Eagles altogether — unlike Otis Blackwell, who had let Elvis Presley take a one-half cut-in songwriting credit on the records Blackwell wrote for Elvis (including some of his biggest hits, like “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up”), and when asked why he put up with it said, “Because 50 percent of something is a whole lot better than 100 percent of nothing,” Felder left a highly lucrative gig because it wasn’t quite as lucrative as he’d wanted or hoped for. The Eagles hired Steuart Smith to replace Felder but kept him on salary, never making him an actual band member — with Frey’s death, the Eagles’ official Web site lists Henley, Walsh and Schmit as the only true Eagles. The Eagles were in and out of various tours since then, including one they’d done in China just before the movie came out (there are the inevitable shots of them outside the Great Wall), though their only studio album since The Long Run was a 2007 collection called Long Road Out of Eden, a two-CD set which instead of marketing through a record company, the Eagles chose to release themselves. Unfortunately, they also chose to cut a deal with Walmart that the album would be available nowhere else — which meant that I would never buy it because, despite Don Henley’s pathetic rationalization that Walmart “is getting greener,” I regard Walmart as the Evil Empire, the Darth Vader of retailing, and between their jihad against any hint of unionization in their stores, their merchandising cheap products from China (when Sam Walton, Walmart’s founder, was alive he insisted that everything sold at Walmart be made in the U.S., but when he died and his kids took it over they got rid of that policy in a hurry), their underpaying their employees and actually inserting documents in their new-hire orientation packets on how to apply for food stamps and Medicaid because Walmart isn’t paying them enough to buy food or have health insurance, and their deadly effect on locally owned businesses everywhere they locate, I have never set foot inside a Walmart and I never will.

History of the Eagles was a compelling, though overly long (it went into some of their business dealings, including their quarrels with David Geffen — they sued him over publishing royalties and Don Henley, ever naïve about people’s intentions, signed a record contract with him as a solo artist in the 1980’s and then had to sue him again and pay an expensive buyout fee to be free to record with the Eagles again), documentary, directed by Alison Ellwood but produced by Alex Gibney, who usually makes Left-leaning political documentaries — and though the Eagles’ story only briefly touches on politics (ironically they chose the Right-wing Walmart to release their most openly Left-wing political album — the title track of Long Road Out of Eden was a denunciation of the war in Iraq and some of the other songs were also more openly political than the Eagles had been before), the Gibney touch is readily apparent in the sheer exhaustiveness of the detail and the commitment to land interviews with as many people as possible (including folks like David Geffen whom he’s casting as the villains of the piece) to tell all conceivable sides of a story that in some respects is pretty typical of a major rock band’s career (formation, success, alcohol and/or drug problems, breakup, lucrative reunions, singular or plural) but has a few interesting wrinkles that make it worth watching even if you’re not (like me) that much of an Eagles fan.

[1] — Whose name — and I hadn’t realized this until I saw the film — is pronounced like “South,” not “Southern.”